The Uniting Church lost one of the great pioneers of diaconal ministry when Rev Deacon Betty Matthews died on 19 July 2022, aged 93. Betty was the first Deacon to be accredited in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) at Cannington Uniting Church in Western Australia on 15 December 1992.
Betty faithfully served for more than 68 years since she was ‘set apart’ as a Deaconess at Fremantle Scots’ Presbyterian Church on 3 February 1954.
Betty arrived in Perth with her family in 1944 and joined Subiaco Presbyterian Church where she was active in the Presbyterian Fellowship of Australia (PFA), ran Easter camps and supported Australian Inland Mission (AIM) Patrol Padres. Betty worked as a typist at the “West Australian” newspaper, but heard the call to diaconal ministry when she met a Deaconess from Victoria who told of a new area where John Flynn was planning to send a Deaconess with a nursing sister to hospitals in the outback.
In 1951, Betty moved to Melbourne, where she lived in a community of diverse woman at Rolland House, the Presbyterian Deaconess Training College, while studying theology at Ormond College. It was while she was there that she became engaged to Alan Matthews, a candidate for ordination as a Minister of the Word.
Betty returned to Western Australia in 1954 when she was “set apart” as a Deaconess based at Fremantle. Her ministry was to establish a church in the newly developing suburb of Kwinana. She visited migrant families as they moved into their new homes, travelling to Kwinana on a Lambretta scooter dressed in her blue Deaconess uniform. A photo of Betty dressed in her uniform on her scooter graced the cover of Women in the Church: A Memoir by Jean Yule.
In 1956, Betty and Alan married and moved to Birmingham in England where they worked in an inner city church. They returned to Victoria in 1957 where they served in Morwell and Ringwood East in the Presbyterian Church. Their son, Ian was born in 1957 and Christina in 1960. Betty was very involved in children’s and youth ministry in church and community, establishing an Infant Welfare Centre in Morwell and a Referral Centre in Ringwood.
In 1970, the Matthews moved to the Northern Territory where the new town of Nhulunbuy, a remote mining town and Aboriginal community on the Gove Peninsula, was being built. They established a congregation there, with services held at first in a marquee, then the recreation hall, before the church was built. Initially the family lived in the nearby Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, where they learned a lot about Aboriginal culture and formed strong friendships with Aboriginal leaders. Betty worked to establish a community kindergarten, co-ordinated cyclone emergency relief and established the Good Neighbour Council.
During Alan’s long service leave in 1976, Betty and Alan visited many grass roots churches in South Asia. They returned to Perth in 1977 where Alan served in ministry at Swan View and at Cockburn Hilton. Betty worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) for 13 years, 10 years as their Executive Officer, pioneering many services to benefit young women – Big Sister program, Emergency Housing for single women, Step Family support, as well as serving on the board of the Western Australian Council of Social Services (WACOSS) and the Youth Affairs Council.
Through this time Betty was also active in the Uniting Church, serving as Chairperson of Presbytery, Pastoral Relations Committee (PRC) Convenor, Candidates Convenor, and on three occasions, Acting General Secretary of the Synod. She was also a strong social justice advocate, especially on the rights of refugees and First Peoples.
Betty was at the 6th Triennial Assembly in 1991 when the decision was made to renew the diaconate in the UCA. Betty was always a great mentor and encourager of Deacon candidates and loved to catch up with Deacons at their regular lunches.
Betty and Alan have always been passionate about ministry with refugees, so when in retirement they moved to Thornlie they bought a house with a self-contained flat so they could house refugees. Many of the refugees they hosted consider Betty and Alan to be their family.
As their health declined Betty and Alan moved into a retirement village in Forrestfield and later to a nursing home at Midland. Until very recently, Betty had been a regular attender at many UCA events as Betty said, “Sitting at home isn’t our scene.”
Betty’s call to ministry was “one of service to the community – the needy, the lonely, the newcomer. As well as working with people to build up their own community whether in the church or outside.” All through her ministry, Betty endeavoured to encourage others and often asked, “And what do you need me to do now?”
Betty is remembered with great affection and will be deeply missed. Deacons around Australia honour her as one of our saints.
We hold her husband, Rev Alan Matthews, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in our prayers at this time.
A Memorial Service to celebrate Betty’s life will be held at 10am on Wednesday 3 August at Kalamunda Uniting Church in Western Australia.